Birds are perhaps the most watchable wildlife — present everywhere, identifying characteristics visible at a distance and an achievable challenge.
There are an estimated 60 million-plus birders in the United States, ranging from beginning backyard birdwatchers to experts who pursue hard-to-find birds in hard-to-get-to places. Some of these folks are solitary while others are more gregarious, looking for birds and sharing the joy in what they find.
Beginner to expert, solitary to social, most birders share a common bond: curiosity, a love of the outdoors and an interest in learning. Birding is a lifelong sport in which all can participate.
What kind of birder are you? Do you travel? The trees at a dreary freeway rest area might hold a never-before-seen bird or provide an uncommonly close look at a common bird. The balcony of your hotel room might provide a perch to see an osprey gliding by, fish in talons. Maybe you are, like Thoreau, someone who travels far by staying close to home. Do you know that the American robin has at least five distinct songs and calls? The possibilities of what you can see in your own backyard or neighborhood are enough to last a lifetime.
Your travels, at home or far away, will make thousands of memories, but what will you use to contain the memories? The brain is leaky; you need paper.
A “unit of memory” in your journal might include the birds that you saw or heard, the context of place, date, weather and maybe any notions that arise. You might write: “At Hydro Park, cold evening near dusk, 13 December, 2010. I walked along the short grass near the river. A great blue heron rose up from the river’s edge with the usual irritated-sounding call and looking ancient, like a pterodactyl.”
Sketches and quick paintings are natural adjuncts to the words in your journal. For those of us unburdened by artistic talent, even diagrammatic sketches of markings and flight patterns can help with later bird identifications, when reference books and the Web are at hand.
There are excellent books on nature journaling, all full of hopeful evidence that art skills sufficient for nature journaling can be learned. You might search for books by Clare Walker Leslie, Hannah Hinchman or Susan Leigh Tomlinson. Better yet, visit Heather Wallis Murphy, a local master of nature journaling, at her website, www.wildtales.com.
Your journals will, over the years, become repositories, not only of memories but also of valuable scientific data. Your records of birds seen year-to-year can reveal changes in habitat, weather patterns and shifts in predators or diseases. Stacking the years on top of one another reveals the choreography of the seasons: arrivals of birds from wintering areas, first blossoms of flowers, eggs in nests, berries ripening, departures for the south.
Your journal entries become more powerful when joined with those from others who record their sightings. We invite you to share your observations of birds and help us all learn more about their numbers, distribution and habits.
You can participate in a nationwide event, the Great Backyard Bird Count. You can also add your bird observations to the online nature journal for our region at www.connectingwithnature.org.
Mark Oswood is a retired biology professor but a beginning birder (old dogs can be lifelong learners). He is president of the NCW Audubon Society, a local chapter of the National Audubon Society dedicated to conserving and restoring natural ecosystems for the benefit of birds and people.